Arion had been in the south a few times. It was next to impossible to get there without crossing through the center region. With Iris and Morin on foot, he didn't have the luxury of flying. The idea of leaving Morin and flying Iris south had crossed his mind more than once. Iris probably wouldn't like the idea. Arion thought it very strange, but despite their initial meeting, they were becoming good friends. If that just wasn't Iris trying to avoid Arion.
They crossed the border into the center. There were no border guards here. Those were stationed farther up, mostly to prevent easterners from hunting in the northern region. Arion couldn't detect any change in the regions. The center was a dangerous place, full of wars, hunters, wild creatures, and bandits. The sun was setting and cast long shadows past the travelers, pointed straight east.
"We're in a cool zone," Morin said.
"Don't say that till we're in the south. Safe."
Arion doubted they were truly in a cool zone. Certain monsters in the center lived underground and gulped down whatever heat source they found first. Most of them couldn't swallow a whole person. He wasn't worried about Iris. If Morin hadn't been exaggerating about Iris's power, she could handle a monster or two. Morin had his crossbow, and, surprising himself, Arion realized that he would help Morin in an attack. If Iris had grown to like him, he was likely more than Arion had thought.
"Iris," Arion started. Before he could continue, Iris cut him off.
"Why'd you kill them?"
"The penalty for murder in the south is death. I just brought it to the east."
"And made yourself like one of them? Couldn't some of them realize the truth if you told them? When you kill them, the rest assume all angels are like that."
"Iris, you've had one encounter with a hunter. One! The majority of hunters wouldn't even think twice about killing you, or me, or any angel. They don't care how we look. They don't care what we say. They don't care what we do. They perceive us as mindless monsters and attack on sight."
Morin said, "I don't know about other people, but I pulled the trigger on Iris because everyone else in the village had done it. If you hadn't showed up, Arion, and I'd kept hunting, I might have turned out like one of them."
"Would you have kept hunting?" Arion asked.
Morin shrugged and kept walking. "I don't know. I'd like to think I wouldn't. But everyone else did. They even burned my house because I didn't let them kill Iris. Rather, Dave didn't let them."
Just who this Dave was could wait until later. Arion decided that any further arguing while crossing the center would only hinder their progress.
If the talking had continued, none of the trio would have heard the small cry. It came from the south, a high-pitched, inhuman yell, suddenly broken off. Its lasting echo faded until all that was left was a painfully high frequency. Iris covered her ears. Morin was staring in the direction the sound had come from.
"Wailer," Arion said, and stepped in front of Iris. Seeing Morin petrified was somehow gratifying, but he hated to see Iris scared. "Stay close. Morin, watch behind us."
They continued their journey. Arion kicked rocks and long-dead bones aside for his party. Occasionally, they'd come across a sword or some other weapon discarded in the tall grass. Other than their footsteps and the rustle of the grass that now came up to their necks, not a single sound was audible.
"What's a Wailer?" Morin asked. Arion was somewhat glad for the broken silence.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I read about them. Nobody ever describes them beyond that scream."
Morin fell silent, and Arion saw no need to continue the conversation. Their line had tightened up. Morin's finger rested, tense, on the trigger of his crossbow. Iris held the back of Arion's shirt tightly in her hand. Up front, Arion listened for the Wailer and anything else.
"We could have stayed in the east until we got farther south," Morin said.
"We didn't," said Arion, unwilling to explore all the reasons they already knew. At that moment, he stopped. "Morin. Behind us."
Morin whirled, crossbow raised. The sky was pure black now, devoid of any stars or light. The light from Arion's wings illuminated the darkness a bit, but in five foot grass, it didn't help.
"Slowly, start walking," Arion commanded. He stepped cautiously, making as little sound as possible. Iris and Morin followed suit.
"There's a town," Iris said, pointing through the dark to an organized mass of dim lights. "Let's stop for the night. I'm . . . tired."
The town was small. The lights from various house windows were still dim, even as they drew closer. At least they lit the entire town. They had no trouble finding an inn. The innkeeper, a kind-looking older woman, escorted them to a large room with four cots. Iris dumped herself on the middle one, far from the door and far from the window. If she had any trouble sleeping, Arion and Morin didn't know. They were asleep long before their semiconscious thoughts could shift to such worries.
The chilling wail sent Morin soaring across the room to where he had set his crossbow against the wall. It didn't subside. The screaming was close, and seemed to come from within the room. The voice was neither male nor female, or if it was, Morin couldn't tell. It wasn't screaming anything intelligible, but it sounded desperate. The screams were frantic and short-spurted.
Iris walked toward the window, gently opened it, and sang into the screaming night. Soft, flawless vocals flowed over the ghastly wails, which slowly faded as Iris's song continued. Her voice was so gentle and her song was so beautiful that Morin was only vaguely aware of anything but the music.
Lyrics flowed, uninterrupted. Iris stood still, leaning out the window, singing a song that sounded like a lullaby and a hymn. A simple melody filled the inn room, despite Iris's position at the window.
The Wailer didn't make a sound. Morin and Arion stood silent and still. For five minutes, nobody moved. Slowly, Iris brought the song to a resolution and faded away. Without a word, she turned around and walked to her bed. Instead of getting under the covers again, she fell on her knees beside it and clasped her hands together. When she finished her prayer, she slid into her bed and didn't move.
Morin looked across the room at Arion, who stood near the door, staring blankly out the window. Arion walked to his bed first. Morin walked to the window and looked out. Every light was off. The night was still and soundless, clear of even wind.
Morin turned to Iris, sleeping with apparent calm. He couldn't know what she was thinking or what she felt, but he didn't think she had sung the song completely on a whim. Desperate to know what had just happened, Morin flopped down on his bed, but was asleep before he could ponder his questions.
The washroom was downstairs, branched off from the inn's main lobby. Nobody was at the front desk. On the desk was a single sheet of white paper, blank except for the words, "Thank You" written in rough, old-fashioned calligraphy. Iris entered the washroom first after seeing the note, then Arion, then Morin. They stepped out of the inn to a town of silence and left it behind without a word.
When the dead town was safely behind them, Morin ventured to speak. "Before hunting was popular, people used the expression, 'voice of an angel.'"
"Mom's lullaby," Iris said, smiling at Morin. "I remembered it." She turned to Arion. "Do you remember it?"
Five speechless minutes later, Morin asked the questions he and Arion both wanted to know the answer to. "How did you do that? How did you know what to do?"
Iris shrugged and kept smiling. "It felt right," she said. "And it made me happy. And a bit sad. But mainly happy."
More confused than he had been before he had asked, Morin began the long, fruitless process of pondering Iris's response. As a human, he knew nothing about angels, but judging from Arion's reaction, neither did other angels.
"South ho," Arion said, pointing ahead at the chain of crudely crafted buildings and fences that made up the center-south border. He turned to Iris and Morin. "Once we cross that border, we start over. Morin, I'll try not to think of you as moron. Iris, we'll be out of danger, but Morin and I'll protect you with our lives. I promise I'll never let you get hurt again."
The border guards gave the three of them a strange look as they passed. Morin dismissed it. He also dismissed the sirens going off in his head when he saw their looks directed at Arion. They were entering the south, one of two true angel sanctuaries left on the lower continent. He could accept that there would be struggles in a new life, but none of them could possibly be as bad as what they had already gone through.